sounds of ancestors once slipped from tongue to air—
ribbon-like, still unfurling.
On the edge of the sea
a silver shell holds thousands, singers who face
thousands more on a grassy gentle rise. All inhale.
Though the hour nears midnight
sun skims waters of the Baltic Sea,
flames in the tower-torch leap high.
The singing will not stop, Lee— lee— lo, the sounds form Leelo! Each ancient syllable earned with sweat and love.
A conductor, peering from within a laurel wreath
clasps his chest, lowers his head,
bows to the choir who has honored song.
The watchers become the singers,
the standing levitate,
the air is alive.
Swirling round, melodies rustle, loosen hair,
saying: we are a living sound—sing us speak us hear us.
Song-Mother’s voices—Hääli imedänne!
* Hääli imedänne – Means “magical voices” in old Estonian * Leelo – The old Estonian word meaning “song,” and the title of an actual song
Author’s Note: Voices is a poem from a chapbook manuscript (in progress) in which writings reflect both the trauma and beauty of Estonian culture and history as it rooted in my personal journey and identity.
Songs from my ancestral heritage have been a central part of my life. As a young child I was mesmerized by very old runic songs, called regilaulud—including shepherd’s calls (helletused). These came to me by way of the songstress Ellen Parve Valdsaar, an Estonian refugee whose magical interpretations left a lasting impression upon me. I also heard and sang much choral music, mostly in the a cappella tradition that allows voices to meld within wonderful, enlivening resonance. The poem, Voices, celebrates the height of such a continued tradition, the Estonian Song Festival, first begun in 1869. It is now held in Tallinn every five years and is designated a UNESCO “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” Click here to hear a refrain from the song, “Leelo” (the old word for “song”) as sung at the 2014 Estonian Song Festival in Tallinn. (In “Leelo” composed by Mart Saar with text from traditional folkverse, the singers plead, “What are these reins, these ropes that bind us?” The antidote, they answer, is “Song! Song! Song!”)
Even as the child of Estonian refugees to America, I understood the transcendent qualities of this music rooted in antiquity. In the 1970’s, as a college music student, I created a small vocal ensemble named Kannel (Zither) which performed mostly traditional Estonian music. Today, I sing with the Baltimore-Washington Estonian Singers (BWES), including in our performance for the capital area’s 100th Anniversary of the Republic of Estonia.
At home my stroke-assaulted mother
you startle and confound me.
On my childhood bed
we eye each other.
Metallic ringing runs from your mouth.
Wailing not at gods
but from some crucible of the gods.
From those Northlands
winds blow low and rise, they ripen.
Your incantation pelts the room,
the color of blue sorrow.
One river, two rivers, three rivers, more.
My voice fails. I fear to go there
and utter nothing.
I offer recorded purity,
nuns singing 9th century Christian chant:
Gloria, laus, et honor tibi sit Rex Christe, Redemptor.
Isn’t this your God?
No! You smack the sounding device
and, though words have eluded you for months,
deep-throated, you decree,
“This is false death!”
and renew your endless spell.
We are so far from singing together.
I don’t know how to join you:
my mouth quill has stilled.
Oh, Mesi Marja-memmekene, Honey Mama-berry, Emakene hellekene, my Mother my dear. Äiu, äiu,äiu, once you charmed me to slumber
on silken nets in this space of braided hair.
* Mouth quill – “Suude sulg,” is a singer’s magic tool, and is found in Estonian mythic lore and runic verses
Author’s Note: Mouth Quill is a poem from a chapbook manuscript (in progress) in which writings reflect both the trauma and beauty of Estonian culture and history as it rooted in my personal journey and identity.
One afternoon when I was five a taxi stopped in front of our small northern New Jersey house. A plump woman in a purple-red flowery dress pushed herself out. Thick stocking seams on her calves ran above sturdy black shoes. With a bulging purse and small suitcase she crossed stepping stones through a grassy yard right to the brick steps upon which I was sitting, just taking in summer. “You must be the little songbird,” she said. Not withstanding that she spoke in Estonian, something no one in the neighborhood besides our family spoke, I bolted inside and alerted my mother that a võõras naine (a stranger woman) was at our house.
Tädi (Aunt) Meeta had come to visit and, as far as I knew, I was meeting our one living relative. Whether the others were dead or not spoken of was a condition I was too young to understand. Tädi Meeta was my father’s sister and, being fifteen years his senior, the only one who was able to risk no peril when she told him, a volatile man, to “pipe down.” I liked her and was surprised to learn that she had a family back in Lake-in-the Hills, Illinois – so we had a little clump of living relatives, after all.
As I grew out of early childhood another relative took on life. She had always been present in our living room – a woman with serious gaze held in a small, lone photo frame. At some point I understood that she was my mother’s mother. And that she was alive. Somewhere — we couldn’t get there, nor she to us.
Miili was my grandmother, but even in absentia I didn’t have that relationship with her. Whenever my sister and I spoke of her out loud we used the term “your mother”—foremost, she was our mother’s missing mother. A hole existed. Something awful had happened that had swallowed up her mother and anything beyond the portrait was simply conveyed by silent watery eyes. Asking more hovered on forbidden, dangerous. She was in a place called Eesti (Estonia), from where my brothers and parents had fled from during war, and I knew what that was from an amalgam of stories, screams and shouts, lectures, ceremonies, songs and photos. Mostly, mother’s-mother was described as “left behind”; but then sometimes she had “stayed behind” because “she was waiting for Sass to come back.” Who was Sass? Why was it a mystery? Another void with centripetal force into which significant people had vanished.
Though I continued using the appellation “your mother,” I had also privately begun to claim Miili as my grandmother as soon as I understood that, rightfully, she was. I recreated her from the flimsiest Known, retrieved her with magical thinking. Like my mother and me, my grandmother had green eyes, and at eight I secretly determined that fact alone made us a trio of soul mates. But actual communication was sparse and letters from behind the Iron Curtain never came directly to our home. They were sent surreptitiously — routed to a place in New York City under a code name. One day a thin, onion skin air-mail envelope properly addressed to my mother arrived from Estonia to our front mailbox. She sat with the letter in her lap for a long time and quietly wept. Her mother, who twenty years earlier had, for “just a little while,” sent off her daughter from Pärnu pier amidst bombs and a burning coastline, who had said, “You go — I’ll wait for Sass,” had died. She never saw her daughter again. Sass never came back.
Short for Aleksander, Sass was my mother’s brother. Gradually my mother opened up about him and others. Their youth in the beautiful seaside town, Pärnu, had been cherished and I hungered for stories; listened, asked questions, wrote into notebooks. It was as if I was plucking her family one by one from where they had been sucked, a dark vortex that had pulled everything under– mother, brother, aunts, cousins and schoolmates never to be touched again; cobblestone streets and tall converging Linden boughs in a town of allées, white beaches – land she loved — never to be seen. Instead, the terror from cattle-cars of people roaring toward deadly Gulags brandished the air.
Sass was snatched midsummer, 1941, when Soviet Russian soldiers took 10,000 people — in one night. Even into old age my mother was never able to shake a trance-like state over it. When, unable any longer to bear the image of my uncle’s remains for eternity under boundless, unidentified Siberian north, I finally asked straight-out, “Where was he taken?” she could only whisper, “I don’t know – somewhere far away in Russia.” “I’m going to find out,” I promised and, unbelievably, I did.
It’s 2016. My mother, too, is gone. With an Estonian film crew I am being interviewed by Williams College students for their class, “Documenting Stories of Escape and Survival.” I am to tell of the effects of Totalitarian regimes, of being American-born to my war refugee parents. One hour has stretched to two. I’ve already sung ancient bird-like melodies and wept through the “Singing Revolution” that helped restore Estonia’s independence after fifty years, squirmed over questions on my odd “double life.” Now I’m sweating. My head feels crushed by chaotic, dissonant sounds – souls crying, shrieking. My finger rests on an aerial photo that, to my utter astonishment, I uncovered from Russian news days earlier. It is a massive sinkhole. Unearthly, its copper-colored sloping pit with a black center presently grows over a buried salt mine in Solikamsk — north of Perm (the famous archipelago of gulags that Solzhenitsyn endured), in Solikamsk — the very place where Sass perished. My voice hardens. Pressurized, it pitches higher, matching the resonance of shrieking souls.
“I don’t wish harm to the people there now,” I hear myself say, “but I wish for this sinkhole to keep growing and growing, swallow up all the earth in that region. Completely. Return it to its primordial state and wipe out all the evil man did here. Nature’s revenge. Karma.”
It’s my revenge. I have never heard myself speak like this. But I realize the picture of the sinkhole is a huge eye. The eye of God. Of the missing God, and this is the moment of telling.
I was uniquely inspired reading the novel Quarry by M. A. Fuller. Not only did its psychological character portraits pull deeply, but there were wonderful Finno-Ugric connections here — hers: having Finnish/Sami history and identity central to the plot; mine: being tied to Estonian culture, who are kinfolk to Finns. I was moved to read along with my copy of the ancient Finnish verses known as Kalevala (similar to the Estonian Kalevipoeg)! And all of her story unfolds, path by path, with its impact upon those in North America which made it personally even more relevant. It is a magnificent book, as you can read below and on reviews by Kirkus and others online.
Here is my brief review as it appeared on Amazon on July 15, 2017.
QUARRY: Mystical yet Deeply Grounded — Beautiful and Brilliant
QUARRY is is a truly captivating novel by Meredith Ann Fuller that has as its main character a girl/young woman who is psychologically haunted and creatively invested by immigrant legacies. Fuller draws vividly from the tumultuous history of North American Finns, their ancient cultural roots, the nightmarish lure of return of some to Karelia and subsequent betrayal by Stalin in the early twentieth century. All of this, with an added splash of Irish-American history, spills over into the life of Rose, who we meet as a traumatically-blinded child. With the help of a therapist, she recovers her sight, only to struggle mightily with what she must face internally.
Rose’s search for self and cohesion forces her to reach not only inward but back into inter-generational history. Fuller’s writing really shines here as she weaves in the spirits, spells, animals and magic that abound deep in Finnish, especially Sami, roots. As a reader familiar with the ancient Finnish epic, Kalevala, I found these connections authentic and mesmerizing. (The reviewer’s attached photo shows Fuller’s novel resting on an edition of Kalevala verses.)
As only a talented writer can do, Fuller leads us from Rose and her family’s journey to ones that hold broader truths, including the well of strength that can come from our roots even as we struggle with their impact. Furthermore, copious artistic illustrations throughout the book are so stunning they inspire like visual-poetic gems.
The author, illustrator (primarily Joan Anderson with others), and Mountain Water Press are to be commended for this sensitive, beautiful and brilliant book.
Sounds with the Young(Upton Street, NW, circa 2001) arose from my time at the Levine School in Music in Washington, DC., a large community music school that serves infants through adults.
The poem opens with the building’s architectural beauty, something that likely deserves a work of its own. An elegant Spanish style revival, it was built in 1906-07 to house the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory. Specific requirements – high, dry, apart from magnetic disturbances – helped launch its site on a steep hill upon a rocky foundation.
The low, Mission-style tile roof became a “hat” for the “Lady on the Hill” in the poem. The idea of a welcoming lady must have subconsciously resonated from the idea of a universal Mother Goose as I thought of the children in my poem.
My colleagues brought music to life for young children in infinitely imaginative ways. One was Mara Bershad, who taught in the Washington area for decades before her too early demise. A musician, harpsichordist, and dancer she spun experiences for children from classical music, traditional songs, movement and artful collaboration that left us speechless with delight.
Sounds with the Young by Kaja Weeks was first published in District Lines: An Anthology of Original Local Work, V. 4 (Politics and Prose) in 2017.
Sounds with the Young (Upton Street, NW, circa 2001)
The music school sits like a lady on a hill,
with a red tile roof for a hat and
light stucco dress,
Spanish revival style, por favor. Carved limestone surrounds her entry.
Splayed stairs, up this way or that,
invite the affair of the day.
Singing four-year olds peal inside,
festive as nothing else you could imagine.
Today she has chosen Respighi and
Mara, curved-back like a cat,
pulls scarves along the floor and
suddenly twirls them high in the air.
Max stares and then lifts his arm
with his blue chiffon rising before Agnes,
light-footed as Mara, swipes it away.
Her giggles pounce – staccato as celesta
in The Pines of Rome.
Corinne, born in Gabon and raised on drums,
rolls her fingers and slaps her hands. Ka-ha-ha-booom, ka-boooooom! Reese and Chloé sound thunder from their hides, Ka-ha-ha-booom, ka-boooooom! But no tremors could disturb this building,
reborn from the Carnegie Geophysical Laboratory, 1907!
Solid as the rock she stands on. Roll on sounds!
Close by, Ming leads babies to sway.
Cries and gurgles in soft laps,
lullaby waltzes hummed and sung — Buy some Coulter’s candy. Next door a glossy petite gamelan jingles
and Indonesian shadow puppets dance while
Monica’s kids cluster in the hallway –
they can’t wait to sing like rain, jump puddles,
freeze mid-air to her piano sounds
that seem to spin them and stop them
like magical notes –
Zeke, Liam and resting-tone Lee.
Upstairs the serious folks have begun
to practice and play.
The old Russian pianist with a black pipe
demands perfection from her charges,
and Charles’ deep baritone voice
falls from windows and floats down
the wide green lawn toward Rock Creek.
At noon Sally, reciting summer camp to-do,
and Vera and I walk the shaded path
to Howard Law School cafeteria
where round tables with bud vases,
warm southern cooking and cool lemonade await.
The ceiling is high, murmurs alive.
We release our sighs into them,
trade quips and tales and sometimes
laugh so hard our bellies hurt –
before we head back for more blooming music
with the lady on the hill.
The Voyage of Mariel and Luna is a creative non-fiction essay about my musical work related to children with autism and their parents. It illustrates the delicate nature of the opening phase. As well, it shows how much a parent’s personal history, including culture and so-called “ghosts in the nursery,” must be taken into account.
The Voyage of Mariel and Luna was first published by The New Directions Journal in 2015.
“Mama was seven months pregnant when they made that crazy trip, squeezed onto one of those shrimp boats – her, Papi and my grandmother and twenty others. They almost didn’t make it. Huge dark waves, like they’d never seen, rolled over the boat. I was born in Key West, the U. S. of A., two months later.”
“Huh,” I manage. I realize I’m squinting at her, trying to figure out what this has to do with her daughter, as in my question, “Your daughter’s name is Luna?”
“I’m named after the Mariel Boatlift. Well, for the original port they left from, but you probably know it from the Boatlift,” Mariel adds. “And for the good part, freedom, before they knew Marielitos would be like a scarlet letter M,” she huffs.
“Huh,” I say again, wondering if the mom has attention deficit issues and is going to ramble around a family history. We now have 30 minutes left for this important meeting about background and of her daughter, the reason for our meeting. I only know that she is four, “hardly talks, but loves music.”
Mariel is very pretty, and I am mesmerized watching her face as she talks. A long-haired brunette, with olive eyes, she sways rhythmically from the shoulders up when she articulates. But a sadness. Mariel … boatlift … she must be Cuban.
At that moment she says, “I’m Cuban-American.” She stops and I’m about to move the discussion, interesting as it is, back to her daughter, when Mariel, drops her eyelids and says with a low voice, “A child of,” and here she heavily taps her palms on the table, accentuating the words, “Cuban exiles.” When she opens her eyelids, her eyes are moist and her glossed lips are pressed shut.
Wow. This woman has a history, and it’s really effected her. I didn’t know from the files. Her last name is Ryan, and this isn’t Little Havana, it’s a huge house in horsey-set Potomac, Maryland. She probably doesn’t think I have a clue to what her emotional voice and her sudden tears are alluding. But I do. I’m also the child of exiles, ones who fled a communist regime. Ok, I’m a lot older – her Boatlift was in the 1980’s I think, while my parents fled after WWII from a place where there were no palm trees, more like northern spruce, and the waves crashing over the fishing boats were in the Baltic Sea. But if her married name is “Ryan,” and she is the child of Cuban exiles, I know the kind of fierce roots entangled therein.
I inhale deeply and look into her eyes. “Mariel, of the Cuban port and Boatlift, you have a complicated background.”
There is a lengthy, white-noise silence. The fridge hums, the espresso maker hisses. Then Mariel smiles weakly, tears roll and she shakes her head. “Yeah … I’m sorry. You must think I’m crazy going off like this.”
“No,” I start to say I actually understand something specifically about this, but decide it would just blur things for her. “I can see, it’s complicated … and emotional. I think maybe we should schedule some extra time to do this.”
“You think?” she bursts into real laughter. “Luna will be home from school soon, too.”
This isn’t how I planned to meet Luna. As practitioner using a developmental frame of music, I like to first process the family and child’s background and then return to use it in a natural play setting assessment that, unlike many other rigid evaluations, strives to help the child to her best functioning while we’re “playing music together.” But we’ve barely gotten to her name!
“It all started because you asked me about Luna. And, see, I chose her name so that it would be connected to my Cuba-ness, and she was born on the night of a beautiful new moon. Even Ronald, my husband, agreed it would be nice for her to have something from her heritage, as he puts it, seeing as I have no connection any more – I left the fold, left the fight.”
Mariel revs up again. I let her go. There is no time to salvage my envisioned meeting, and, fundamentally, this is in sync with the way I had been trained by Drs. Greenspan and Wieder – the centrality of family in working with the children – all these details will meld and shape how we work. As well, they emphasized sensitivity to mental health issues and clearly, Mariel, wound so tight, will need her own supportive measures.
“After my son died,” she starts and my head flings up from the notebook in which I was jotting. She had a son who died? My mouth drops but no sound emerges, and Mariel keeps going.
“Jorges died in a car crash when he was sixteen,” she speaks now in monotone. My thoughts immediately go to the god-awful spring season of proms when so many young people, full of life to the brim, risk their lives. “It was prom week,” she confirms.
“Now Jorges, he was Cuban. Gorgeous kid,” she weeps. “Spoke Spanish at home with Gustavo and me, with his Abuela. An amazing Latin percussionist, my boy – soulful and so alive. We lived in Miami. We had a whole community. We ate, drank, the kids played, families politicked together.”
I am about to ask what kinds of games they played as kids because it’s one way to connect adults to their child selves and I can adapt just about anything with singing. But Mariel goes on, “ He loved plantanos maduros and Abuela’s arroz con pollo. Luna – this never passes her lips. Potomac Pizza for the Ryans,” she chokes.
“I left,” she shrugs. “I was heartbroken. I didn’t know how I could live. I got divorced, came to Washington, got a job.”
This was not going to a good place, I knew. She left “the community” and now she was married to a Dr. Ronald Ryan — no naming of a child “Luna” would be enough to sustain those deep connections.
“They said I stopped being Cuban – my mother, my sister, my relatives, even friends. Even now, my sister criticizes me for not teaching Luna Spanish. Does she care,” Mariel’s eyes were livid, “that I can’t teach Luna to speak in any language?!”
The big hallway clock strikes on the quarter hour and a little girl with a long dark brown ponytail bursts through the front door. A uniformed woman waves through the crack and slips away anonymously. The girl runs into the kitchen where we are seated.
“Hi sweetheart,” Mariel gets up, seeming to want to hug her, but the girl zooms past and runs circles around the big table in the adjoining dining room. “Luna! Come say hello to our visitor,” her mother directs.
I know this isn’t going to happen and I ache for both of them. Next time, I will encourage mom to playfully block Luna’s way, not corral her but with her arms wide open so Luna will have a reason to interact. Luna likes to run – that’s good – we can chase, we can block, we can dodge, we can join her by singing to her pace. Mariel is rhythmic — I know that from her flowing shoulder and head movements. She appreciates vibrant sound and beat, I know from Jorges’ dazzling Latin percussion.
I know that as much as her life in the present is with Dr. Ryan in Potomac outside of Washington, DC, her broken roots are Cuban-American. I’ll find some songs she may have known and put them to her own remembered games to share with her child.
Señora Santana comes to mind … Señora Santana por qué llora el niño?
Señora Santana, why does the child cry? For an apple that has been lost. I will give you one, I will give you two One for the child, one for you. I don’t want one, don’t want two I want the one I lost.
I know she is heartbroken over two children – one she lost at sixteen, and one who she cannot reach at four. But with her love and yearning, her child’s desires, and my knowledge from today, crammed as full as that Cuban shrimp boat, this will be the start of another new voyage – of Mariel, Luna and me.
TheCoastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia) was first published by Bluestem Literary Magazine. In it I write about the mysterious effect of “knowing” a place in which one steps foot for the first time — in this instance, the reedy, flowering coastal meadows of Pärnu, my mother’s hometown by the sea. The place settles on me, “like linen upon an infant sung and rocked to sleep,” and I wonder, “Who slipped this place in me? Was it my choosing, or has it crept unknown?” These, I ponder, are markings of being “a refugee’s child — daughter of a true daughter of southwestern Estonia — who grew with her mother’s hollow in her heart.”
Below is my translation of Coastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia) into Estonian. I am grateful to Estonian-born philologist, journalist and poet Sirje Kiin for her kind fine-tuning.
Rannaniidud helgivad kuldselt,
lahutavad sinise vee sinisest taevast.
Paadi pea tungib
läbi rohekaslilla pilliroo.
Olen kodus. Ei iial siin elanud.
Kuidas on see paik saanud minu omaks,
nagu linane katte pandud mu peale,
kui imikul kellele hällis lauldakse?
Kes pani selle paiga salamahti minusse?
Kas valisin selle ise või hiilis ta mulle teadmatult?
Millal pani ta mu kiiresti hingama
ja kinkis siis rahustava ohke?
Olen pagulase tütar,
ustava Pärnumaa tütre-tütar,
laps kes kasvas
oma ema südamevaluga.
Igatsen seda rahustavat ohet,
mere äärse pilliroo sulgede sahinat,
meeles peetud helisid, kuldseid sahvatusi ,
neid aja ja ruumi vigureid.